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Conservationists to challenge Bush Fish & Wildlife Service's failure to consider protection for 17 at-risk Algodones Dunes endemic species

FWS breaks the law, fails to respond to scientific petitions to protect wildlife and habitat

BLM’s plan to open 86% of fragile dunes habitat to off-roading puts rare wildlife at risk of extinction

NEWS RELEASE: for immediate release Thursday, December 2, 2004

Contact: Daniel R. Patterson, Ecologist 520.623.5252 x306

WASHINGTON DC – Moving to protect unique and fragile Sonoran Desert wildlife threatened by intensive off-road vehicle abuse, the Center for Biological Diversity today put the Bush administration on notice that they intend to challenge the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s (FWS) violations of U.S. conservation law.

The administration is in clear violation of the Endangered Species Act by failing to respond to two scientific petitions filed with FWS, one to list the Andrew’s dunes scarab beetle, and the other to list 16 Algodones Dunes endemic species, as threatened or endangered. The beetle listing petition was filed by the Center in December 2002. The 16 endemic species listing petition was filed in July 2004 by the Center, Sierra Club, and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. By law, FWS is required to issue a finding on petitions within 90 days, detailing their analysis of the information provided in petitions, and a plan of action .

The biggest harm to Algodones Dunes wildlife is intensive off-road driving – the dunes are hammered by upwards of 240,000 off-roaders on a single busy weekend. Off-road vehicles at the Algodones Dunes include sand rails, motorcycles, trucks, and ATVs whose tires cut deeply into the sand habitat, even when accelerating on level ground (Stebbins 1995). The dunes are currently managed under a 2000 court approved agreement between the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), off-roaders, and conservationists that keeps over 106 sq. miles open to unlimited off-roading, while 49,000 acres of the dunes are protected for wildlife, and scenic non-motorized recreation. Despite this fair balance, the dunes have suffered from illegal off-roading in protected habitat areas, and lax BLM enforcement, especially during this Thanksgiving holiday weekend. BLM is pushing to scrap the current balanced multiple-use management and open all available dunes habitat to destructive off-roading.

“Protection of these interesting animals is needed, and required by law, because the Bush plan to sacrifice the Algodones Dunes to the off-road industry could cause their extinction,” said Daniel R. Patterson, an ecologist with the Center who formerly worked with BLM in the California desert. “The Bush Interior Department has again broken the law with their complete disregard for the unique and fragile web of life at the dunes.”

In addition to the Andrew’s dunes scarab beetle, the 16 endangered dunes endemic species are: two sand wasps (Microbembex elegans Griswold and Stictiella villegasi Bohart); two bees (Perdita algodones Timberlake and P. glamis Timberlake); one vespid (Euparagia n. sp.); two velvet ants (Dasymutilla nocturna Mickel and Dasymutilla imperialis); three jewel beetles (Algodones sand jewel beetle, Lepismadora algodones Velten, Algodones white wax jewel beetle, Prasinalia imperialis (Barr), and Algodones Croton jewel beetle, Agrilus harenus Nelson); two scarab beetles (Hardy’s dune beetle, Anomala hardyorum Potts and Cyclocephala wandae); and four subspecies of Roth’s dune weevil (Trigonoscuta rothi rothi, T. r. algodones, T. r. imperialis, and T. r. punctata). Conservationists also want critical habitat designated for all 17 species concurrent with listing, as required by law.

Dunes are hotspots of desert biological diversity, likely because they are more mesic than other desert habitats due to their ability to store water. The Algodones Dunes are no exception, harboring dozens of rare endemic wildlife and plants within its habitat island. Animal species endemic to the Algodones Dunes are adapted to the hot, arid environment and often exhibit habitat specialization, such as dependence upon a particular host plant. Narrow endemic species and habitat specialists are considered more prone to extinction than widespread habitat generalists (Rabinowitz 1981, Sarre et al. 1995, Fischer and Stocklin 1997, Henein et al.1998).

During daylight and early evening, 80% of desert fauna are buried underground, and are subsequently crushed and maimed by off-road vehicle tires (Stebbins 1995). For example, scientific surveys comparing areas used by off-road vehicles with protected areas at the Algodones Dunes indicate that off-roading causes drastic reductions in the abundance of several beetle species (Luckenbach and Bury 1983). Off-roading also resulted in reduced plant cover, further threatening the survival of the rare endemic species of the Algodones Dunes that depend on these plants for food and breeding sites. Studies at the dunes have shown that even moderate off-road vehicle use results in significant reductions of plant cover (Luckenbach and Bury 1983, Hess in prep.).

The preferred alternative in the Bush BLM’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the proposed Recreation Area Management Plan for the Algodones Dunes (BLM RAMP 2002) would permit off-roading on an astounding 198,220 acres and protect only 25,800 acres which are already designated wilderness by act of Congress. The one-sided plan is being pushed without any consideration of the myriad rare endemic species that are the subject of the July 2004 petition. In fact, the DEIS listed only five insect species as “known to occur or having the potential to occur” at the Algodones Dunes, and only three of the species are endemics (Andrew’s dune scarab beetle, Carlson’s dune beetle, and Hardy’s dune beetle). Therefore, the BLM ignored the nearly two-dozen other endemic insects at the Algodones Dunes for which information has long been available in the scientific literature. Conservationists were able to locate information on these endemics readily in the published literature, reports to the agency, and via personal communication with entomologists familiar with the area. It is therefore disturbing why the BLM made no acknowledgement of these species in its management plan.

BLM has continued to push its abysmal management plan despite scientifically proven adverse impacts of off-road vehicles on the species that inhabit the Algodones Dunes. Therefore, vulnerability from anthropogenic (historic, ongoing, and imminent human-caused habitat destruction) and environmental (restricted range, habitat specialist) pressures, as well as a complete failure of the existing regulatory mechanisms to protect this fragile dune habitat and the species it supports from excessive off-road vehicle use, puts the rare endemic wildlife at the Algodones Dunes at risk of extinction.

The BLM plan to remove the protected areas would be devastating to dozens of imperiled species – including the Peirson’s milkvetch, desert tortoise, Algodones dunes sunflower, flat-tailed horned lizard, and Andrew’s dunes scarab beetle – greatly worsen air pollution, and run off hikers, birdwatchers, photographers, Native Americans and others. In addition to allowing intense environmental harm, opening conservation areas to off-road vehicles will displace and keep away non-motorized visitors, costing nearby communities in the Imperial Valley and Yuma at least $3.3 million annually in sustainable recreation related spending.

Earlier this year FWS rejected a petition by the off-road industry to remove Endangered Species Act protection for the Peirson’s milkvetch, finding that the rare flowering plant is harmed by off-road vehicles and in need of continued legal protection.

The Center, Sierra Club, and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility are negotiating with the American Sand Association, an off-road group, seeking an agreement on long-term sustainable management options at the dunes.

Dunes info & photos
Beetle info & petition
16 endemics petition

Contact Daniel Patterson for a copy of today’s legal filing.


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